NEWS of Imran Khan’s disqualification has just come in. Has he become irrelevant? Absolutely not!
The ECP’s decision will be challenged and may or may not stand.
The disqualification, moreover, risks serious civil disorder.
Like it or not, Imran Khan is Pakistan’s most popular political leader (possibly more than ever now.) If there is a general election anytime between now and when it falls due — and he is able to contest it — he will almost certainly win it. If elections are indefinitely postponed — as is now possible — Pakistan will be flung into a cauldron of uncertainty.
Moreover, without him, Pakistan’s biggest political party will effectively cease to exist. The pretence of democracy will become impossible to sustain. Pakistan would risk becoming an international pariah.
As prime minister, Imran Khan was not a success. His image as a saviour was seriously sullied. Much of the political intelligentsia abandoned him as a bitter disappointment.
Nevertheless, the youth of the country, more or less across the board, have never given up on him because of their hatred of the incorrigible corruption they see his political opponents indulging in, and which is ravaging their lives. They are aware Imran Khan may not be an angel. But, compared to his rivals, the youth and most probably a considerable majority of the poorer classes do indeed see him as an angel. The following, accordingly, assumes elections will be held on schedule and Imran Khan will be able to lead his party into them.
Accordingly, one may still ask whether Imran Khan can reinvent himself and become a more successful prime minister in a second innings. Can he reinvent his party? Would this require a new team in place of the stalwarts who have stood by him? Can he contain the security establishment, which refuses to stay within its constitutional limits, undermines the rule of law, smothers every democratic aspiration and development imperative, and does not like clear electoral outcomes? Can he adopt the Singapore legal model to eradicate egregious corruption? Can he generate movements for reform and comprehensive systemic change? Will he root out religious extremism and terrorism or again fall prey to religious pandering, policy inconsistency and unprincipled compromise? Will he face down the IMF’s policy of ‘socialism for the rich and the free market for the rest’ or again choose ‘technocratic’ surrender? Will he regain China’s strategic confidence instead of ‘balancing’ policy between a strategic friend of Pakistan and a strategic friend of India? Can he revive CPEC? Can he develop a detailed and implementable manifesto, including a financing strategy for a Pakistan Green New Deal to combat the climate calamity that is already overwhelming us? Can he develop and sustain a PGND-compatible policy towards India without prejudicing the rights of the Kashmiris despite Indian disinterest? Can he build Afghan trust in Pakistan? Only results would provide answers.
What kind of world will any elected prime minister face? Global heating has locked the world in a collective struggle for survival.
On Sept 22, 2022, the United Nations Secretary General told the world that the climate crisis was the defining issue of our time. It must be the priority of every government. It is being put on the back burner. We have a rendezvous with climate disaster. The hottest summers of today [will] be the coolest summers of tomorrow. The poorest are the most vulnerable (worldwide and within countries.) One-third of Pakistan is submerged by a monsoon on steroids. The polluters (rich industrial countries) must pay. The international scene is one of no cooperation, no dialogue, no collective problem-solving. We need a coalition of the world.
What the UNSG said holds good for every country, government, party and leader. Polluters must indeed pay. But that does not excuse poorer countries from doing everything to ensure their own survival. This includes collectively pressing the richer countries to fulfil their COP (Conference of Parties) commitments and obligations to save the planet. Pakistan has become a flagship of the UNSG’s crusade against climate calamity.
This imposes a responsibility, an opportunity and an imperative on Imran Khan or any prime minister of Pakistan to become a regional and global leader. His/her national and external policies will need to be formulated and implemented within such a paradigm. Zero-sum games both at home and abroad will have to be transformed into positive sum games. Nothing will be easy. India will remain obdurate for the time being. There will be unrelenting external pressure and domestic opposition all the way. Existing institutions in their existing state will not help. But failure will not be an option.
There is, of course, an unavoidable time factor that precludes radical change from being achieved immediately, largely because of the state and mindsets of civil, political, economic, social, religious, educational, judicial, bureaucratic, security and media institutions. Nevertheless, the effort to bring about radical change, despite these formidable obstacles, must both visibly and convincingly commence without delay.
Radical change will be essential to break free of the clutches of the IMF and other international financial institutions. As a result of mismanagement and the floods, Pakistan’s growth rate today is barely above its population growth rate. Given its gross income inequalities, imagine the waterfall of people falling below the poverty line each year! This waterfall will become a raging sea of dying people as the population soars towards 350 million or more by 2050. There will be epidemics and pandemics; massive desertification; melting snows and rising seas; drowned cities; massive population displacements; forest fires, floods and droughts; loss of habitats and cultivable land, etc. In such a burning world, the fact that all of humanity will share the same fate shall provide no solace.
For Pakistan and the rest of the world, the choice is stark: either accelerated progress towards a Global Green New Deal, including a Pakistan Green New Deal, which will require a comprehensive revision of the prevailing global and Pakistani state capitalist and security order towards a democratic and sustainable eco-socialist order, or the imminent rise of murderous ethnic and racist ideologies that will ensure an explosion of internal and external confrontations, conflicts and annihilation. More than ever, Pakistan will need a leadership respected by the people and that choice can only be made by the people.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.